Why is China a popular study destination for Zimbabweans?

Peter Tagarira is one of thousands of African students who have made the great trek to study in China. He graduated in 2022 with a degree in international business management from the Dongbei University of Finance and Economics (DUFE) in Dalian in Liaoning province, Northeast China.

China was not part of his plan but, coming from a business family, he decided on that country when he heard that it had a fast-growing economy.

None of his family members had attended university in China or had ever been to China, Tagarira said. “I was born into a business family that owns a few companies. Because of China’s growing economy, you get to learn a lot from other people. I learned a lot about business in China. It was more about exposure, seeing what other people do businesswise.”

Tagarira said that, at first, there was a language barrier, but his university provided a translator fluent in both English and Chinese and, with time, he learned the language.

“I was self-funded. The fees are not that bad. Where I studied, tuition was US$3,000 per year. Compared to other places in China, that US$3,000, is enough to cover the full four study years in China. The only difference is all these other universities don’t have international lecturers.

“They have Chinese lecturers who are trying to speak in English. So, there might be difficulty in learning because most Chinese people are not fluent in English. You have to do most of the work yourself when it comes to understanding,” he said.

He said DUFE is more of an international institute that employs academics from all over the world, mostly Americans. “That is the advantage. If you decide to go to a cheap place, you will face the consequences of a cheap place. If you decide to go to an expensive place, then you are assured that you will get quality.”

Performance key to scholarships

He said scholarships are available, but they come with strings attached. “If you are on scholarship, you have to make sure you pass every semester with distinction, which means at least 90%. It’s hard to maintain that. Yes, of course, they give you a monthly allowance, they pay for your accommodation, they pay for your flights, but the catch is you now have to make sure that you defend that scholarship,” he said.

Being self-funded is advantageous because it is affordable. “Your US$3,000 can get you a degree in a different city, but mostly in the south. Most billionaires are found in the northern parts, so it is a bit expensive there.”

Tagarira said China is not so open about giving people work visas, which means they may have to return home after completing their studies.

He described the standard of living in China as “perfect” – “who wouldn't want free wi-fi everywhere you go? If you go to a restaurant, the password will be displayed on the wall. The fees are very affordable, food is affordable, transport is affordable, even the nightlife is affordable,” he said.

Number of African students growing

ICEF Monitor, a market intelligence resource for the international education industry, reported on 21 April 2021 that most foreign students in China come from India, but that the number of African students is rapidly growing.

Development Reimagined reports that China hosted 74,011 students from 24 African countries in 2017, thanks to the overall growth of 258% from 2011-17,” ICEF said.

Current statistics on the number of Zimbabweans in China are unavailable.

Cidella Chidziva, who graduated in 2022 with a bachelor degree in computer science and technology from Ocean University of China in Qingdao on the Chinese mainland, told University World News that heading to the East Asian country to study came naturally. She said that, if she decides to further her studies, it will likely also be in China.

“I always wanted to have a multicultural experience for my university education. I grew up obsessed with China’s music, traditions, films, and especially their technological advancement, so picking it as a study destination just came naturally,” she said.

“The main advantage of studying in China is its affordability. As a student, you don’t really need to be worrying about where your next meal will be coming from or if you need to be taking other jobs on top of your studies to be able to make ends meet.”

Language barrier a huge challenge

Chidziva said the main disadvantage associated with studying in China is obviously the language barrier. Chinese is not easy to master, for most students. “No matter how hard you try to run away from it, you’ll still need to learn it. You might be taking your classes in English but, elsewhere, everyone is speaking in Chinese – from the taxi drivers to the shop attendants, to the doctors.” She said she moved to China without speaking a word of Chinese but mastered the language in six months.

Chidziva had a scholarship. “If you have good grades, you can easily get some kind of scholarship because the Chinese government is trying to make China a top study destination for many international students. The Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC) is sponsoring thousands of international students to come to China, either for short-term studies or four-year degrees,” she said.

Erroll Mutanga, who started engineering at South China University of Technology, one of the top public universities in Guangzhou, said his father is a Zimbabwean war veteran who was trained in China and fought during Zimbabwe’s war of liberation in the 1970s that ushered in independence from colonial rule in 1980. His father had a high regard for the Chinese, so he steered him towards studying there.

“My father never went to school because of the war so he wanted me to get an education. Since I was in school, he always said I would go to China for my studies,” Mutanga said. “China is a great country, a superpower. We hear of racism, but I have never experienced it. That does not exist on campus.”

Mutanga said the Chinese have a high work ethic and the fate of his unborn children has been sealed; they will also go to China to study.

Peter Tagarira (left) and Leo Mashonganyika, Images provided

Students learn Mandarin to prepare

Leo Mashonganyika, an honours student in financial and accounting systems and development applications at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, said that he has enrolled to learn the Chinese language at the institution’s Confucius Institute. He said he has an option of furthering his studies in China as enrolment at the Confucius Institute could guarantee one a Chinese scholarship.

Zanele Nqobo Ndebele, an advanced-level student at Townsend High School in Bulawayo, has enrolled for Chinese lessons in the city as she plans to study in China.

“I have chosen China of all the countries because of its upper hand in specialisation and I’m generally someone who is more than passionate about the Mandarin language and its culture at large,” she said.

Socio-cultural challenges are among the biggest hurdles African students experience in China, according to an article published in the International Journal of Engineering Research and Management in October 2021. This includes difficulty making friends with Chinese people and attending Chinese cultural activities as well as racial discrimination. Academic challenges include difficulties in understanding teachers’ explanations during classes and difficulty interacting with Chinese colleagues.

Facilitating access to scholarships

Donald Rushambwa, general manager of the China Zimbabwe Exchange Centre (CZEC), said they are holding expos for prospective students to access scholarship opportunities. CZEC is a registered, private, voluntary organisation that comprises Zimbabwean and Chinese citizens to facilitate study opportunities. The first such expo was held at the end of October 2023 in the Chinese province of Hubei.

He said they want Zimbabwean students to learn from the Chinese model of development. “The Hubei Expo is a platform meant to showcase scholarships for students to study in China. Various scholarships and self-financing programmes were on offer to Zimbabwean students. So far, over 200 Zimbabwean students are studying in Hubei,” he said.

China has a growing economy with the most advanced technology, which is beneficial to students as Zimbabwe can follow development trends from the Chinese model of growth-development, he added.